Interview with an Academic: Professor Sasanka Perera , Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences of South Asian University
This month the Global Editor for Foreign Exchange The Diplomatic Society, Srimal Fernando was pleased to interview Professor Sasanka Perera, the Founding Chairman and Professor in the Department of Sociology and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences of South Asian University (SAU).
Srimal Fernando (SF): Give a brief background of yourself?
Professor Sasanka Perera (Professor): I had most of my school education in Sri Lanka except for one year I spent in Australia in 1978 or so on a scholarship. That was my real first opening to the world beyond home. As part of growing up and going to school, I have lived in different parts of the country. As government servants, whenever my parents were transferred, they simply packed up their goods, collected their family and went where they were asked to go. Unlike today, they did not seek the intervention of politicians to make changes to their transfer orders. But after we came to Colombo in 1971, we stayed there. My undergraduate education was at the University of Colombo in the early 1980s where I studied Sociology, Political Science and English. This time is important to me for another very different reason, beyond academic matters as I also met my wife there. I went to University of California in 1986 to study Anthropology. I had come to the conclusion by this time that cultural anthropology offered me the best possibilities for more seriously studying the political upheavals Sri Lanka was experiencing at the time. From University of California, I received my MA, CPhil and PhD degrees. From 1991 to 1992, I conducted post-doctoral research at Princeton University with Professor Gananath Obeyesekere. I returned to Sri Lanka by late 1992 and joined the teaching staff of the Department of Sociology in 1993. I resigned from the University of Colombo in 2011 to come to South Asian University.
For me though, my life is not only about academics; I write poetry when adequately inspired; I spend considerable time with photography if I can find the time; I am interested in blogging; and I have a passionate interest in art, an interest which I share with my wife Anoli, who is a practicing artist. I have now transformed my passion in art into an academic enterprise as well.
SF: From the point of view as the Dean of Social Sciences of South Asian University (SAU) in India, what is your opinion about the current university system of India?
Professor: India has such an extensive university system spread across all kinds of levels, it is almost impossible to give a coherent and extensive opinion. After all, unlike the relatively small university system in Sri Lanka, India’s system includes central, state and private universities, deemed universities and many many colleges. Despite the number, however, I can see that the quality of training offered by these institutions vary considerably from place to place. On the other hand, despite the thinking that has gone into creating major universities, I can see in the Indian system the same kind of deteriorations in academic quality I have seen in Sri Lanka and other parts of South Asia. This has resulted from politics seeping into these institutions in a very unhealthy manner as well these institutions’ inability to attract the best possible people. This has ensured the rapid erosion of the intellectual space we call ‘academic freedom.’ For me, being an academic is not a matter of simply holding a job. It is a vocation; it is a way of life; it is a passion; and above all, it is a responsibility. To be all this, one needs a specific frame of mind in addition to training. I am not sure if these attributes are shared by many people who come to universities as teachers nowadays in India as well as in South Asia more generally. Even so, it seems to me that some key universities in India still have a core group of thinking people who produce significant research which unfortunately we clearly miss in countries like Sri Lanka. This is particularly more visible in the human sciences as opposed to technical fields.
SF: How do you evaluate the South Asian University (SAU) performance within the University system within the South Asian countries?
Professor: South Asian University started operations only in 2010 and the Faculty of Social Sciences and all other programs except for Development Economics and Computer Science in 2011. So it is still too early to talk about an evaluation in a comprehensive sense. After all, we are scholars, not magicians. We cannot build an institution by simply waving a magic wand. In real terms, we are building an institution under very difficult conditions when comparable institutions in the entire region have undergone serious disruptions. In this context, I think we are doing reasonably well though there is quite a bit of room for serious improvements in the way we think and do things. But even so, if I am to simply focus on my own Faculty, I am quite happy with the progress we have made so far. Intellectually, I think we are doing quite well. We have done so many things including designing of courses and extra-curricular and outreach activities which usually takes more traditional and established universities decades to do. Being relatively small, I think helps quite a bit. We are not burdened with traditions. In fact, we are in the process of building our own traditions, and hopefully our own place in history which I hope we can be proud of in the future. So let us wait for a few years and see how we actually perform in South Asia.
SF: Can you name some of the major post graduate, masters, doctoral courses and research programs that are being offered by the South Asian University (SAU) to the South Asian and to other International students outside the region?
Professor: At the moment, we offer programs both at the MA/MSC and Mphil/PhD levels. These are offered in Sociology, International Relations, Development Economics, Legal Studies, Computer Science, Mathematics and Bio Technology. When the university goes into its second phase, we are expected to have an undergraduate program as well as an expansion of our current disciplinary makeup.
SF : Out of the current International student enrolment, approximately how many numbers of students represent from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan and the Maldives and follow various courses at the Faculty of Social Sciences?
Professor: In terms of absolute numbers, if you take the two MA batches in Sociology and International Relations in the Faculty at the moment, we have 6 students from Afghanistan, 14 from Bangladesh, 2 from Bhutan, 3 from Pakistan, 2 from Sri Lanka, 1 from the Maldives, 10 from Nepal and 52 from India. From the two Mphil/PhD candidates in both IR and Sociology, we have 2 from Afghanistan, 2 from Bangladesh, 2 from Sri Lanka, 3 from Nepal and 6 from India. So we have some representation from each South Asian country. But numbers also show that in my Faculty as well as in the university more generally, some countries are under-represented. The Maldives, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are among these. More specifically, what I mean is this: though students come to our university even from these underrepresented countries, their numbers do not come anywhere close to the seats available for them. As far as I am concerned, some serious outreach work needs to be done specially in these countries to attract more students to our Faculty as well as to the university. But this is not simply the responsibly of the university alone. After all, this is an initiative of SAARC for which all the member states contribute financially. So I think the organizations overseeing higher education in these countries also need to play an active role in directing interested students towards our university. After all, we conduct entrance examinations annually in all the SAARC countries.
SF: What are your thoughts about your Faculty and the relationship with the past and present South Asian students?
Professor: Well, I can only offer a partial answer. The other part will have to come from students themselves. Maybe you should also do an interview like this with them at some point. On the whole, we challenge our students to excel and move beyond classes. In a sense, all the activities of Faculty of Social Sciences are at least in part geared towards this. The Departments of Sociology and International Relations host their own regular seminar series. These bring in experts in the specific subjects to talk to us but we also often blur our own disciplinary borders in what we do. ‘Cinema and Society’ program from the Department of Sociology which is open to the entire university encourages students to critically and self-reflectively view films on a regular basis. And sometimes we offer the opportunity for them to talk with film-makers and scholars about these films. The annual lecture series, ‘Contributions to Contemporary Knowledge’ hosted by the Office of the Dean invites a scholar of repute from anywhere in the world to present their work so our students as well as teachers might be motivated to engage with their ideas and to think out of the box. These are our gifts not only to folks in SAU, but to everyone in Delhi who might have an interest. There is a blog run by the students from the Department of Sociology called ‘Rickshaw’ open to everyone in the university and beyond as a forum to express their ideas. We expect our students to necessarily take part in all these activities and also help organize these events. But quite frankly, I think the course work and these activities are sometimes too much for them. We know that some people drop out. And others complain that we expect too much work from them. Yet others actively take part on many of these events. For me all this is part of our reality. If what one wants is a simple degree, they can always get it from anywhere. Maybe even online. If this is the expectation, then I really don’t see why anyone should think of coming to my faculty because there are many other places where life would be much easier. But if what is needed is a nuanced education and serious intellectual and cultural growth, then they can come to us. But it is tough. Personally, I did not resign from my previous job in a university that is over 100 years old and embark on building this institution to simply hang around or only to teach. I expect my colleagues and students to think on similar lines.
SF: Through what major partner/s or agencies does the Faculty of Social Sciences at the South Asian University (SAU) work to promote higher education among South Asian and in other Asian or African countries?
Professor: As far as I am concerned, in the short run, we cannot have an impact in the higher education sectors in these countries directly. In the short run, what we can hope for is to only improve ourselves as an institution in making sure that the research we do and the training we offer are of the highest quality. By that I mean, we must attract well qualified academics to our Faculty, and attract motivated and intellectually curious young people to come to us for their education from these countries. In the short and medium term, this is my expectation and this is what we have focused on. This is also achievable. And in this respect, I think we are doing well within the constraints we have. More specifically, we also have to encourage younger teachers in universities and colleges in these countries who might need advanced training to come to our Faculty. This has already happened to some extent, and whenever we see such candidates, we would consider them seriously as long as other prerequisites are met. In the long run, if these plans work out well, that would mean that we will be training young people for these countries. And when they go back to their home countries, to their institutions and to their universities after their training with us, at that time I am sure our impact on higher education and the social structure of these countries at least in some spheres would be visible. But this is a long term plan which needs much planning and a lot of patience.
On the other hand, my Faculty has received a number of requests for collaborative work from institutions in other countries. But we could not put any of these into practice as the regulations for collaborations and for signing MOUs are still not in place. This is a significant lapse that we have to address. Nevertheless, both the Department of Sociology and the Department of International Relations have worked with a number of international funding agencies to organize a series of conferences and a summer school already. And these will continue. So far, our efforts through such collaborations have only been in Delhi and India given the reality of our location. But if we are to be more successful, these kinds of efforts also must necessarily move to other South Asian countries and beyond the region as well. For example, the Department of Sociology has taken a principled decision which has been cleared by the Board of Studies of the Faculty of Social Sciences to try and organize a few conferences in Colombo and Kathmandu to begin with if funds and suitable local partners can be found. What this means is that our presence will be more clearly felt in these cities and these countries while we can also directly impact knowledge production in these countries. But this too is a goal that still needs to be fulfilled in the future. But if we can do this, then I am sure colleagues and students from these countries would want to come to our Faculty because our reputation in their own contexts would be self-evident.
SF: What are the challenges faced by your Faculty? And what steps has the University taken to improve the facilities, performance and the image of your Faculty at South Asian University (SAU)?
Professor: When we first came in, our major challenge was the lack of a library. But over the last three years, we have established a small and reasonably well-stocked library which also offers access to significant online databases. It is also an efficient and responsive library. This is a major improvement and I can see that it will grow. It would be nice to see better office spaces where academic colleagues and administrative staff can work in more comfort and spend more time in the university helping build some sense of community, which I think still lacks. But as I said before, we are still building this place. Over time, hopefully infrastructure would also improve. One can always be hopeful. Besides, it is not a crime to dream. On the other hand, by and large I think the administration has been fairly responsive to our needs, particularly when compared to other intuitions of this kind. But I think the capacity for creative thinking and the way in which South Asia and the world beyond could be re-imagined differently from the somewhat colorless thinking of nation states is something that the University in general can take more serious note of. But in the end, how we perform as a Faculty and how our image is created is up to the Faculty itself and not anyone else’s responsibility. So far, whatever image we might have built is our own; whatever our lapses might be, are also our own.
SF: Is there anything in addition that you would like to include?
Professor: Yes. For me, the idea of this university which came from a small group of serious thinkers in South Asia is grand idea. It deserves to work. But for that, we need help from governments, people and organizations. We need constructive criticism from people within and beyond the university to improve what we have begun. Within the university itself, we also must think creatively. On this count, the university must necessarily improve. Its South Asian character also cannot be restricted to mere words. Our student body is reasonably well representative of the region though as I have said before, some countries are underrepresented. But the situation is very bad when it comes to teachers. Of about 60 odd teachers, only about five or so are from countries outside of India. Most of them are in my Faculty. Personally, I find this situation quite embarrassing if not just wrong. It is in this context that the university is about to launch a visiting professor scheme to attract scholars from these underrepresented countries to come and teach in our university for short stints. But in the long term, this will not work, and we have to go out of the way to seek and bring the best possible minds from these countries to our university as fulltime teachers. This must be the university’s priority. It is certainly one of mine.